April 28, 2020

4: Great Uncle Bill and World War I

4: Great Uncle Bill and World War I
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RASC Horse Drawn Supply Company courtesy of the British National Army Museum

On Jan 6, 1913, the Feast Day Of The Epiphany, a day that celebrates the visit of the Three Wise Men to the new born Christ Child in Bethlehem, William Robert Nutty joined up for service in the British Army. In retrospect, there was precious little wise in that decision as Europe and much of the world was soon to be plunged into the body and soul wrecking slaughter house that has come to be known as World War I.

Bill, as he was known in the family, was my Granddad Fred’s older brother or if you want to be genealogically correct, my great uncle. He died in 1968, when I was three years old and now I find myself wondering if we ever set eyes on each other. The truth is, what I know about Bill is limited to British military and Irish archives. I have no personal memories and virtually no family anecdotes to fall back on. Hopefully at some point in the future that will not be the case, but until then I need to attempt to understand Bill’s life by exploring the history of the city and country he grew up in. I’ll go deeper into the history of Dublin in the 18th and 19th centuries to reveal the inescapable pressures that shaped, not just Bill, but his siblings, parents and grandparents whose stories I plan to tell in the future. However, I will return to Bill’s story in the pivotal 2nd decade of the 20th century when he came of age under some of the most demanding conditions any young man can experience.

Why 17 year old Bill signed up for service with the British military is unknown to me, but this was a route many young Irish men had followed in the 18th and 19th centuries. By the time Bill enlisted three years into the decade, astonishing epochal events were yet to happen. In the final seven years of the decade, Bill and his family would witness the labor struggle of Dublin’s 1913 Lock-Out, the wrenching slaughter of WW1, the drive for Irish independence sparked by the 1916 Rising the pandemic devastation of the 1918 Spanish Flu and the start of the brutal guerrilla war known as the Anglo Irish conflict or the Irish War of Independence. But all of these events were in the future on that Epiphany Day when Bill enlisted. The Dublin of Bill’s youth, was a difficult place. The city economy had been in a state of stagnation long before Bill was born on the 16th of July 1895.

View of Henrietta St, one of Dublin’s fine Georgian streetscapes courtesy: William Murphy from Dublin, Ireland

To understand the origins of this malaise, we need to go back, to a century before Bill’s birth, to Georgian Dublin, a city which had shrugged off it’s medieval origins to create streetscapes of great public architecture which included James Gandon's Four Courts and the stately town homes of Henrietta Street that survive to this day. Dublin’s cultural life was equally rich, in the Spring of 1741, on a visit by the famed composer to the city, the first performance of Handel's Messiah was held at the Great Music Hall on Fishamble Street.

The Music Hall on Dublin’s Fishshamble St

The city also produced some of the finest minds of the 18th century and included among it’s numbers: political philosopher Edmund Burke and Jonathan Swift author of Gulliver’s Travel, to name just two.

By the close of the 18th century, this vibrant city population could boast of being the 2nd city of the British Empire. The cultural ferment, which was 18th century Dublin, resulted in the creation of an intelligentsia susceptible to the ideas promulgated by the Enlightenment and brought to life in somewhat dubious fashion by the French and America revolutions. Towards the end of the 18th century, this emerging liberality led to the creation of the Society of United Irishmen in 1791.

The United Irishmen advocated for a new political order which was to be more broadly inclusive of all faith traditions in Ireland. Catholics and Presbyterians, who were not part of the Protestant Established Church, were barred from taking a seat in the Irish Parliament of Ireland. This Penal Law stricture, resulted in a Parliament which represented a minority of the island’s inhabitants and thus served a very narrow set of interests which were more closely aligned with the ruling powers in London.

Not all members of the Irish Parliament were blind to the hypocrisy of a supposed democratic body which was barely representative of the island. However any reform efforts were glacial at best and the increasingly radicalized United Irishmen opted for a military solution with the support of the French First Republic.

In 1798 a poorly coordinated set of sporadic risings, ultimately capped by the landing of a small French force at Killala in the West of Ireland, failed abysmally and were suppressed with efficient brutality by superior British forces. Academics disagree over the number of casualties resulting from the short conflict, but it seems somewhere in the range of a staggering 10,000-50,000 Irishmen lost their lives. While Ireland was not a stranger to rebellion and conflict, this violent spasm would have a profound impact on the island and specifically Dublin City.

Following the rebellion, the British ruling class were fearful of the Irish rebels’ short lived alliance with Revolutionary France and perturbed by the island’s Catholic majority who were agitating for political inclusion. It was clear that some future Irish Parliament would be required to grant Catholic representation which could be expected to be hostile to the British Crown and it’s aristocracy. The British solution, to their Irish problem, was to consolidate the Dublin and London parliaments which would bind the troublesome Irish more closely to Britain. In 1800, The Acts of Union were passed by both the British and Irish parliaments creating a merged parliament in London. Even if the new parliament was to give access to Irish Catholics, their voices would now be muted by the scale of the larger body.

The bicameral Dublin Parliament had been comprised of a House of Commons with 300 representatives and a House of Lords of approximately half that size. The members of these body’s were the elite of Irish society, often with great country estates from which they would decamp for parliamentary sessions in the city. The legislative sessions usually coincided with the Dublin Social Season which traditionally stretched between the New Year and St Patrick’s Day. This elite political class, occupied Dublin’s famed Georgian townhouses and mansions, many of which, still exist today. More importantly they provided much employment for the city’s less affluent classes who supplied services and luxury products to the occupants of the the grand houses. With the departure of the aristocrats to London, the beautiful town homes were no longer needed and much of the attendant employment lost. Many of these homes were sold to Dublin’s merchant class at knockdown prices and had it not been for another seismic event, the city’s economy may have survived this departure of political capital which diminished the status of the city.

In the latter half of the 1840s, a second hammer blow fell on Dublin’s economy which would destroy the city’s economic recovery from the dissolution of it’s parliament. While the horror of The Great Famine's starvation is rarely associated with Dublin, there is little doubt of it’s devastating impact on the fabric of the city. Modern Irish history’s most important event, further damaged Dublin’s merchant class which had managed to thrive on the back of the hinterland’s rapidly expanding population. Ireland’s population had doubled from 4 to a staggering 8 million between 1781 and 1841. This demographic explosion, built on the back of high yielding subsistence potato crops, would implode in the Famine, fueled by starvation, disease and emigration. The Famine years of 1845-1849 still echo both culturally and historically and resulted in a 20% decline of the island’s population in just 4 sorrowful years.

Famine Memorial Dublin: By User AlanMc on en.wikipedia

Following the Famine, Dublin increasingly became a city of hungry and dispossessed refugees broken by starvation and evicted from their lands. The startling diminution of the rural population and increasing impoverishment of city dwellers had a negative impact on the merchant class. Those that managed to retain some of their prosperity, moved to Dublin’s newly created Victorian suburbs fleeing the increasing concentration of misery. The formerly grand town houses of the aristocrats, transitioned into densely crowded tenements. What is now known as Inner City Dublin entered a downward spiral which would persist for 150 years until the 1970s.

This is the Dublin Bill Nutty grew up in. How much of this history he knew is unknown to me as was the extent of his education. In 1831, mandatory education for children aged 6–14 became the law of the land. Did Bill persist in his education up to the point of his army enlistment in 1913? The 1911 Census lists 15 year old Bill as a scholar, but he might, like many of his peers, have finished his schooling shortly thereafter in order to contribute to the family’s economic pot.

Job opportunities in Dublin would have been limited in Bill’s teenage years. The city had never really industrialized like Belfast, it’s sister city to the north which had grown dramatically during the 19th century on the back of ship building and linen production. By the 1911 census, Belfast had expanded from a small provincial town of 25,000 100 years before, to Ireland’s largest city with a population of 385,000. In contrast, impoverished Dublin had a population of 305,000 up from 186,000 in 1821. The tepid growth of the city’s population reflected the ongoing problems of the surrounding rural regions. During this period, successive waves of emigration cut Ireland’s population in half from its pre-famine 1841 high point. By the time of the 1911 census, Ireland’s population had shrunk to 4.3 million and would not see any appreciable growth until the 1960s.

1911 Census for 37 Fitzroy Ave. Bill is listed under his full name, William Robert on the third row of the return

Bill’s father Robert worked in the post office, a profession pursued by many other family members. Bill, unlike his younger brothers Fred and Bob, did not follow his father into the postal service. Did Bill desire to carve an alternate path or was it simply a function of position availability? Much of Dublin’s employment prior to the infamous 1913 Lockout, was offered on an intermittent per-diem or hourly basis. Employers had a large swath of underemployed Dubliners to choose from and in a period of brutal unregulated capitalism, business owners had most of the pricing power such that they could pay significantly less then cities like Belfast. This imbalance would ultimately lead to the Lockout, a scant 8 months after Bill joined the army.

Dublin Lockout police clash: O’Connell St 1913

By 1911, 15 year old Bill is living with his family at 37 Fitzroy Ave in Drumcondra close by the Royal Canal which marks the northern boundary of Inner City Dublin. He was fortunate enough not to be born into the worst of Dublin circumstances. Despite his father Robert’s steady middle class job, the stable income only resulted in the family being able to afford a modest two bedroom terrace house in what was the newly emerging Dublin suburb of Drumcondra. The 1911 census lists Bill and his seven siblings, along with his mother and father all living in the small home. In less than two years Bill signed up for the army, could it simply have been a lack of job options coupled to a claustrophobic home situation?

While employment and a suffocating home life may have been triggers for enlistment, Bill’s uncle, Dick Nutty, may have also played a contributing role. Dublin born Dick, had signed up in 1884 with the Northampton Regiment and spent a spotty 18 years in the army, culminating with a stint in South Africa during the Boer War at the start of the new century. Did Dick captivate Bill with tales of adventure or was it the even more mundane lure of a fine army uniform capable of turning a pretty girl’s head in drab Dublin?

Regardless of the ultimate reason, Bill was in the army in 1913 just in time for nationalistic rumblings of war to be turned into a full fledged crisis with the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in June of 1914. The murder of Arch Duke Ferdinand in Sarajevo would trigger a system of interlocking military alliances into the world’s first global conflict. Bill disembarked at at the French port of Boulogne on August 8, 1914 in advance of the first fighting troops of the British Expeditionary Force. He would serve on the Western Front for almost the full duration of the war. Sadly knowledge of his exact service is unclear as close to 60% of WWI service records were destroyed during the London Blitz Of WW2. Apparently, Bill’s record was a victim of the 2nd great conflagration of the 20th century.

Bill Nutty WWI Medal Card

Despite the loss of Bill’s service record, other military records help fill in the gaps and indicate more about his movements and activities. Bill’s medal card record reveals that he served in the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC). In 1914 the corps was known as the ASC though, the “Royal” prefix would only be attached in 1918 in recognition of the vital role this unglamorous wing of the army played during the war.

In modern parlance, the RASC was engaged in what we now call military logistics. The corps was responsible for keeping British troops supplied in the field, which numbered upwards of 2 million troops on the Western Front in 1916. The scale of numbers created an unprecedented level of demand for supplies as initial optimistic expectations of a short conflict morphed into the grind of total war. The RASC managed depots, coordinated the scheduling of trains and ships and maintained the final leg of the supply lines using both mechanized and horse transportation. Munitions, armaments, food and other supplies passed along this chain directly to the dreaded trenches. Bill appears to have been involved in these lines as his medal record lists his service number prefixed with an “S” indicating that he was involved in supply activities.

Irish Troops, who would have been supplied by the RASC, at the Somme 1916

While life in the Supply companies of the RASC might have been safer then service in the trenches, Bill did not survive the war unscathed. On September 5, 1918 Bill departed France for England on the Stad Antwerpen. The Belgian ship had started life as ferry but had been converted to a hospital ship during the war.

The Stad Antwerpen

Bill’s post-war military pension file gives the next clue as to what had happened. He is listed as receiving a disability pension with a diagnosis of Neurasthenia, a term of medical art which has fallen out of use and likely refers to a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This stress condition seems to have been folded into a collection of ailments then referred to as Shell Shock. Given Bill was not serving in the trenches, what had happened that resulted in this diagnosis? Had he been exposed to front line terror in the course of his work on the supply chain? Could Bill have been part of the RASC ambulance service and been exposed to some of the more horrendous injuries resulting from trench combat? Had too much intermittent exposure to the horrors of the war simply overwhelmed Bill’s psychological resilience? Bill had arrived in France in 1914 and had risen from a lowly Private to an Acting Sergeant by the time of his departure, did his increased responsibilities play a role in his condition by placing him in more dangerous situations? Or perhaps Bill had been on the receiving end of a combat injury which ultimately manifested in psychological problems.

Whatever the cause of Bill’s difficulties, his pension record indicates that he was suffering from a 20% impairment in January of 1920. Exactly how such a precise scale of disability was established is unclear. By 1921, British military bureaucracy had almost comically recalibrated his condition as improving to a 15%-19% disability. What the pension record does not reveal is how Bill was treated on his return to Ireland following his discharge in February 1919. Bill might have been a decorated veteran on the winning side of WWI, however he had served in an army that was now increasingly viewed as the enemy by an Irish public increasingly sympathetic to the 1916 rising and its’s successor rebel insurgents.

On the 21st of January 1919, less than a month prior to Bill’s discharge, the first hostilities of the Irish War of Independence broke out in Soloheadbeg, Tipperary with the killing of 2 Royal Irish Constabulary officers by the IRA. The country would descend into a brutal guerrilla war conflict which would persist until hostilities ceased with the truce of July 1921 that would ultimately lead to an unsatisfactory Irish independence for many. Some Irish WWI veterans served on the side of the victorious IRA, some few chose to serve with opposing British forces. There is no evidence to indicate that Bill was involved in this conflict either way.

The 1914 Star, British War Medal, British Victory Medal: Bill would have been entitled to wear these awards

How would Bill have navigated a delicate reentry into Irish society following his service? To what degree was he impaired by the disability recorded on his pension record? There would have been no space in the newly independent nationalistic state for him to talk proudly of his service, with old comrades nor opportunity to display his service medals at annual commemorations.

The new Irish government seems to have done its best to ignore the service of the 206,000 Irish nationals who had served in WWI. Almost 50,000 had died in the conflict, their sacrifice was consigned to a remote war memorial on the outskirts of Dublin in Island Bridge. Many of these men had enlisted at the urging of John Redmond the leader of the nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party who had encouraged young men to volunteer for WWI service as a bona-fides proof of a mature Irish polity. Redmond had labored for more than the 30 years to acquire a measure of Irish political independence which resulted in the passage of the 1914 Home Bill bill. Now the service, sacrifice and scars of these soldiers, whose enlistment he had encouraged, would be ignored by his more radical successors. No thanks would be proffered to the survivors, their hardships forgotten by all but their families.

Irish National War Memorial Gardens — I took this picture on Nov 12, 2018 one day after the centenary commemorations of the end of WW1. The wreaths at the base of the monument list the details of family members, long gone, but not forgotten

In the absence of family anecdote, I imagine Bill struggled on his return from war. He secured employment at Smallmans a Dublin plumbing outfit that survives to this day. He married late, at the age of 46, in 1942 to Kathleen Melody at the church of St Agatha on North William St hard by the Royal Canal. The same church where my grandparents married almost 20 years before.

Bill and Kathleen’s June 10, 1942 marriage registry entry

Did Bill’s late marriage indicate some social discomfort or indicate often reported difficulty of veterans to connect as a result of wartime service? His wife Kathleen was not just his wife but also his sister in law! His younger brother Harry had married sister Margaret Melody some four years prior. While I know Bill married late in life and had four children, sadly, I’ve never had any contact with them. I can’t say definitively why that is the case, but I’ve guessed at the reasons in earlier parts of this series. If anybody out there knows Bill and Kathleen Nutty’s children: Edith, Barbara, Robbie, Charlie or their families, please have them contact me at TheNuttyChronicles@gmail.com.

Hopefully Bill’s marriage, resulted in a lasting bond of happiness, a bulwark against a loneliness induced by the harsh memories of the bloody, muddy, sorrowful mess that was the Great War. Did this marriage, entered upon at the height of World War II, wash away and supplant some of the sorrows of the prior war or was that grim shadow always hovering, unassuaged by time?

Bill died at the Mater Hospital in 1968 from peritonitis. His funeral mass took place at St Francis Xavier church on Gardiner Street in the heart of Dublin and was followed by burial at Mount Jerome cemetery. Although I did not know Bill, my Grandfather’s brother, I salute his service. May he rest quietly and his service and those of many other young Dublin lads, not be forgotten.